Paradox in the Details: The Role of Place in Story

Nina Munteanu at When Words Collide 2021

A few weeks ago, I (virtually) participated in When Words Collide, one of Canada’s prime writing festivals in Calgary, Alberta. I was a featured writer, sitting on several panels and conducting presentations and lectures.

One of the two presentations I did was on the role of place in story

The role of place in story is a topic close to my heart and one I recently wrote an entire writing guidebook on: The Ecology of Story: World as Character. In my coaching sessions with writers and in my writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto, I’ve observed in the novice writer a need for more effective integration of setting and place in story. All too often, the lack of meaningful integration translated into a lost opportunity to explore the POV character and the story’s theme. The lack of meaningful use of place in story can result in a lacklustre story, overly vague characterizations and a story that lacks metaphoric depth and relevance.

The presentation and following discussion drew from my guidebook Ecology of Story and I used many examples from a wide range of literature to overview topics covered in the book, such as:

  • Place as character & archetype
  • Place as metaphor (personification, symbols, allegory)
  • Place and first impressions (openings)
  • Place and emotion (over time and by POV)
  • Place through the senses
  • Place as environmental force (including climate change)

We also discussed how characters connect with their environment and I introduced the metaphoric connection between the Mi’kmaq and the white pine forests in Annie Proulx’s Barkskins, among others.

I concluded the presentation with a discussion on the “paradox in the details”: the more specific description is, the more universal its appeal. This is because the details can establish relevance and realism to the scene and the POV character experiencing them. Vagueness and lack of tangibility are avoided through specificity. The key, however, is to use details that resonate with the theme and tone of the book: as metaphor. Details as metaphor is what you want to achieve. 

Because, as Ray Bradbury once told me, “everything in story is metaphor.” 

The Ecology of Story: World as Character is presented in two parts.

Part 1 provides a comprehensive summary of the science of ecology, the study of relationships, and links to useful metaphor.

Part 2 discusses world and place in story. Here I discuss how the great writers have successfully integrated place with theme, character and plot to create a multi-layered story with depth and meaning. Part 2 also contains several writing exercises and detailed case studies.

Nina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press(Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times ‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” was released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.

“Ecology of Story: World as Character” Workshop at When Words Collide, Calgary

EcologyOfStoryI recently gave a 2-hour workshop on “ecology of story” at Calgary’s When Words Collide writing festival in August, 2019.

The workshop—based on my third writing guidebook: “The Ecology of Story: World as Character”explored some of the major relationships in functional ecosystems and how to effectively incorporate them in story. We  briefly explored how ecosystems and ecological processes work and looked at several of the more bizarre examples of ecological adaptation.

I showed how treating world and place as character provides depth and meaning to story through its integration with plot, theme, and other characters. We looked at these story components as integral to help ground the reader in context and meaning of story. We explored place / setting as metaphor, symbol, archetype, and allegory.

Through literary examples of setting and place, we looked at how readers are drawn into story through metaphor, sensual description, and thematic integration through POV character.

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Reviewing the story we created through an exercise

Then came the story-building part of the workshop—a snappy, fast-paced dialogue among all workshop participants. Using the book’s cover image as story-prompt, we worked through the story components of premise, theme, character, plot and setting. Following a lively discussion, we succeeded in creating a stunning first crack at a story that was both original and intriguing. And at whose heart was a strong sense of place and identity.

creating a story

“The Ecology of Story” had only recently been launched at Type Books in Toronto and saw its first use at the Calgary When Words Collide conference. Books were sold out an hour after the workshop.

Microsoft Word - EcologyOfStory Launch.docx

“The Ecology of Story” recently achieved Amazon Bestseller status in the Ecology category.

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Nina starts her “The Ecology of Story” workshop with Part 1: ecology

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Nina talks about some interesting adaptations in reproduction

 

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Stream on Vancouver Island, BC (photo by Kevin Klassen)

 

nina-2014aaaNina is a Canadian scientist and novelist. She worked for 25 years as an environmental consultant in the field of aquatic ecology and limnology, publishing papers and technical reports on water quality and impacts to aquatic systems. Nina has written over a dozen eco-fiction, science fiction and fantasy novels. An award-winning short story writer, and essayist, Nina currently lives in Toronto where she teaches writing at the University of Toronto and George Brown College. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…”—a scientific study and personal journey as limnologist, mother, teacher and environmentalist—was picked by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times as 2016 ‘The Year in Reading’. Nina’s most recent novel “A Diary in the Age of Water”— about four generations of women and their relationship to water in a rapidly changing world—will be released in 2020 by Inanna Publications.

 

Nina Delivers Words and Worlds at WWC

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Smoky sun overlooking Rockies (photo by Nina Munteanu)

I recently travelled from Vancouver with Pixl Press director Anne Voute through the smoky Rockies to the 8th ‘When Words Collide’ writers festival in Calgary. The festival was held August 10-12, 2018 and brought together just under a thousand readers and writers in multi-genres to attend presentations and panels on writing and publishing.

The three-day writers’ festival ran a 10-track program that included informative panels, Blue Pencil Café, Editors Speed Mingle, pitch sessions with agents and publishers, and challenging workshops.

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Selling books at Myth Hawker

My books were on sale in the Merchant’s room at Sentry Box (a local Calgary bookstore) and Myth Hawker Travelling Bookstore. By the third day, Myth Hawker sold all available copies of Water Is…

I participated in panels, Blue Pencil Café, Editors speed mingle and several presentations and workshops:

  • You Oughta Be in Audio: a discussion between me and audiobook narrator and producer Dawn Harvey on the making of the audiobooks for The Splintered Universe—now available in three formats, print, ebook, and audiobook. While paper sales dwindle, audiobooks continue to be the fastest growing segment of the publishing world with sales increasing by 30% year over year for the past decade.

Amazon-SplinteredUniverseTrilogy

  • World As Character: a presentation on creating a world with meaning. In most science fiction and fantasy, the world that we create is often very different from our own; in speculative fiction it’s often very similar; in contemporary fiction it is virtually the same. In all cases the world you build should embed in your story with layered metaphoric meaning. Nina Munteanu will discuss how to build a world that interacts with character to inform greater meaning in story.

FictionWriter-front cover-2nd ed-web copyJournal Writer-FRONT-cover-WEB copyI also networked my writing community for world examples to use in my Alien Guidebook on world building: The Ecology of Story: World as Character. Anticipated release by Pixl Press of this third guidebook in the Alien Guidebook series is Summer of 2019. In keeping with the branding of the series, artist Anne Moody is providing the cover illustration and Costi Gurgu the cover design for The Ecology of Story. Covers for the previous two books were also done by Anne and Costi.

Cover-everyday hero

‘Everyday Hero’ by Anne Moody

Earlier in the month, I travelled north with the Pixl Press director to Anne’s ranch in Vanderhoof to requisition a cover from her for the guidebook. After days of discussion and “show and tell” and after several pieces of art were tentatively selected, Anne pulled out a piece that stopped our search dead. ‘Everyday Hero’ depicts a lonely firefighter, trudging in the burning forest, tired gaze to the burning crown of a tree. Considering the subject matter and our world today, we thought this was perfect for my book.

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cover design by Costi Gurgu, illustration by Anne Moody

Depicted in shades of blue, charcoal and brilliant red, the cover contrasts and harmonizes well with the brand typology and cover design by Toronto graphic artist Costi Gurgu.

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nina-munteanuNina Munteanu is an ecologist, limnologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books.